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Just Passing Through
I drive us through the railway tunnel and around a sharp green bend, past barricades of thickly-planted trees and high hedges screening quietly expansive homes set far back from the road. Soon the view widens to open fields, and we start the long familiar climb up to the town I was born in. Next to me, staring grimly forward, sits my Mum, who was born here too, and stayed for the first 84 years of her life.
In my mind, I am 14 and on the bus again, chewing tired gum and pretending to enjoy smoking as the branches clatter against the windows of our green single-decker. The back of the bus is an unforgiving place, where giggling girls and snivelling acolytes like me form a sycophantic court around a handful of hard nuts, any of whom can dispense street cred or humiliation on a sudden violent whim. The bolder girls let the boys squeeze them and kiss them noisily; plebs like myself can only look away in tortured awe. Soon I will gravitate to the front of the bus and take up my rightful place among the squares.
Because I always got off, alone, at a remote stop before the bus reached town, it was clear to everyone that I was some sort of nerdy gaylord paedophile. Every night I pressed a reluctant bell, and tried to shuffle unnoticed off the bus. Dragging my hated tuba case over the road to Cowslip Cottage, our isolated hilltop home, I would keep my head down, pretending not to see the lads at the back jeering and gesturing at me.
Mum sighs softly in the passenger seat as I drive, quietly swallowing another of the many aches and pains that are always with her now. She never does more than wince or flinch furtively; it’s all part of the stoical stubborn streak that kept her living independently for so long, even if the refusal to seek help bordered at times on the dangerous:
Why didn’t you phone when the sharp stabbing pains started, Mum?
I don’t like to bother them. The NHS has got enough on its plate right now.
Mum has a reverence for doctors that reminds me of the way people once treated the local priest in rural France or Italy, hanging on his every word, grateful for the honour of scrubbing his smalls or unblocking his loo, dropping round joints of meat and cheeses and bottles of wine in an endless procession of favours laid against eternity’s door. Mum still always dresses up to visit the doctor, just as she and Dad did for their appointment with the bank manager.
No tie – no mortgage, my Dad actually used to say. I always liked the sound of this world, which I barely remember but which always makes me think of Reggie Perrin and Monty Python and Terry and June. I picture suits with wide lapels and shirts with big collars, flared trousers and cheesecloth blouses, spaghetti bolognese and candles stuck in empty Mateus Rose bottles. I vividly remember screwing up my nose at our first-ever Chinese takeaway! Spring rolls were evil, and curry made no sense either.
I suppose my parents were young then, certainly younger than I am now. But I just can’t see it.
Mum has been living with me and my wife Sheila for three years now, ever since The Fall. Viruses, knee ops, stents, inflamed joints, cataracts… For years, Mum weathered one medical crisis after another, always bouncing back to her dogged, stubbornly robust self. She was, as people said, a tough old bird, an Empire woman, a force of nature. They don’t make them like that any more, they said. She’ll outlive us all.
But that last Fall, the one that no one could account for, brought us to a new era of vulnerability and pathos. Suddenly the fierce control freak hated to be left on her own. The rock of my childhood was now plaintively anxious about the smallest things. She was even prepared – whisper it – to accept help. The stuffing’s been knocked out of her, was what people said now.
With a family in the city and two daughters still at home, Sheila and I offered Mum a berth at ours. We all pretended the arrangement was temporary, but we all knew it wasn’t. These things are never plain sailing, but we’d all been on holiday together several times before and for the most part we rubbed along well enough.
The departure of my twin daughters for college knocked me sideways, quite unexpectedly, and Sheila and I almost divorced a few months after Mum’s arrival. It’s true that I was provoked by the way Mum sat knitting through our marital meltdown, her face a mask of taut unsmiling concentration, as if just getting from one minute of life to the next was a great achievement. Secretly I suspected that Mum sided with Sheila, and though this provoked me too on one level, it reassured me on another, as I didn’t think much of my own cause either. But we got through that period in the end, and somehow Mum’s presence was one of the threads that helped bind us together again.
Nowadays, Mum and I drive back to the old town every couple of months, to respond to another in a long line of calls from Mum’s past: golden wedding anniversaries, surprise parties to mark milestone birthdays, visits to care homes and hospital beds – and, inevitably, funerals.
Today’s excursion is a memorial service for a teacher at the school where Mum taught biology for 32 years. He was a well-known figure locally, a stalwart of the rambling club, a scout leader and all-round good egg. His end was unfortunate. In the last weeks of his life, he took to disappearing on long walks, and in the middle of one night he wandered out from his semi-sheltered residence, found his way down onto the bypass, and walked into an oncoming lorry.
‘There it is, the old place,’ says Mum, bang on cue. There are certain words and phrases that she can be relied on to bring out with unfailing punctuality. The internet’s creeping destruction of civil society. The inability of tourists to just look at things rather than take selfies. The nefarious rise of self-service checkouts. There was a time when these unwavering pieties drove me to distraction, but as Mum seems to shrink and weaken with every passing day, I feel only a sort of tender impatience for them now. If one day we drove past a petrol station and Mum failed to tut over the price of fuel – a figure she somehow always knows to the penny, despite not having driven for more than 20 years – I’m not sure I would know what to do with myself.
Cowslip Cottage, bought in 1964 and sold in 1999. The house I was born in and grew up in, all the way until I left home. The house my parents scrimped and saved to buy, with a mortgage they no doubt dressed up for. A few memories flicker: Dad building the garage with his bare hands. The bedroom, with its bunk beds, me on the top and the one below for the brother or sister that – despite repeated promises – never materialised. The gate at the bottom of the little garden that looked out over the poppy-flecked meadow that belonged to the big house next door. The injured fox we adopted one winter, the shed that randomly caught fire, the sledge runs on the icy drive, the funny couple on the other side that had drunken arguments in their garden.
I look at my watch. We are – for some reason and quite unlike me – very early for the service, and I find myself slowing the car, flicking on an indicator, and pulling up on the narrow verge outside the gates of Cowslip Cottage.
‘What are you up to now?’ says Mum, just as I knew she would. She does not, as a rule, welcome deviations from the expected course of things.
‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Let’s have a gander.’ ‘Gander’ is a mum expression – along with ‘hell’s bells’ and ‘swanking it’ and ‘Bili-o’ – and I am pleased to have found it for this moment. Mum sighs, but not, I think, entirely unhappily. Her joints are sore, her bones ache, her breathing is shallow; I know that for her the prospect of unexpected movement always involves a weary pre-assessment of cost against benefit. But still, by the time I get round to her side of the car, she has unbuckled herself, and as soon as I open the door she swings her stick-thin legs gamely over the edge, one after the other. For a moment she dangles them over the side, like the red-suited county swimming champion she once was, and then she is grasping my outstretched hands and pulling herself up to a swaying standing position.
Still holding one of my hands, she hobbles forwards, quietly gasping as the uneven verge – still not resurfaced, after all these years! – catches her unawares. With a stab of reflexive selfishness, I think of my own ailments – the arthritic wrist and shoulder, the creeping bar of pain across my lower back, the racing heart that wakes me at dawn. The gate is open, we notice, and three chunky cars are parked in a self-congratulatory line between road and garage. Only it’s no longer a garage, we see now, for there’s a woman standing in the window (also new), a silhouette of bronzed skin and artfully messy blonde hair with a large wine glass to her mouth. Now she has seen us, and as we stand there helplessly, she nods something to an unseen someone and gestures in our direction. She stands at the window and watches, glass to her mouth, as a man appears at the door.
‘Can I help you?’ says the man. The tone is quizzical, neutral, a bit of a posh bark; ready to go wherever the situation requires.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I begin.
‘We used to live here,’ says Mum, her eyes staring at the door behind the man. He wears jeans and a Rolex, and his artfully arranged hairline goes well with his compact, self-satisfied paunch.
‘We just hoped to peep over the gate,’ I lie. ‘We were just passing through. We so rarely come this way now.’
A second lie. Mum ignores both, which is not like her. She keeps staring, shuffles forward a step.
‘You’ve moved the front door,’ she says.
It sounds like a challenge, but the man smiles.
‘Yes!’ he says. ‘First thing we did.’ He thinks for a moment, then extends an expansive arm. ‘Look… why don’t you both come in a moment and have a look around?’
We protest, we apologise, we bow and scrape, and a couple of minutes later we are walking around the old place, shoes off by the new door, taking in the extraordinary transformation of the cottage.
It’s like something out of a magazine. The old kitchen and dining room and lounge have been knocked through, and the living space extended out into the garden by several feet. The garage is now the new kitchen, all shiny gunmetal surfaces and discreetly expensive appliances. The remains of a giant chicken carcass sit on a large spiked metal plate on a granite worktop, next to a couple of empty bottles of Bordeaux.
As soon as we enter, the man hands over to his wife, the blonde woman.
She wrinkles her nose. ‘Hello!’ she says, a trifle distantly.
‘Oh! It’s OK,’ says the man. ‘They’re the ones before the last ones.’
‘Oh!’ The woman’s face changes at once.
I begin explaining about Mum and Dad, and how this had been their dream house, and how they’d turned it from just a shell into a proper home that they’d hoped to fill with children, only no more came. And how Dad has passed away now, but – as I was to repeat several times over the next half hour – how he would have absolutely loved all the wonderful improvements and alterations they have made to the place he and his wife loved so much, and where we were all so happy…
I am babbling now, and Mum shoots me a warning look. But it’s all sort of true. Dad had cherished this place, and worked night and day to make it liveable. He and Mum couldn’t really afford it, but they had set their hearts on it, and they spent the rest of their lives doing it up and paying it off.
As I look around, more scenes and images and smells come to me. Dad making a fry-up early on a Saturday morning, thinking himself alone, wearing just a wrist watch. Mum’s singing group, belting out carols in the back room. Our little cat Mitzy bringing in frogs from the pond. My collection of cigarette cards, long since lost. The old reel-to-reel recorder I made hilarious radio shows on with my best friend Rob. The night a car crashed into the gatepost, and the police ran through our garden. The unmistakable odour of Dad’s strange medicinal shampoo.
A little girl grabs me by the hand now and leads me through a door. ‘This was my room!’ I say.
‘Well, it’s mine now,’ she says defiantly.
‘Oh I know!’ I agree at once. ‘And I love what you’ve done with it!’ Mollified, she offers me a fluffy unicorn.
Her mum smiles approvingly at the bedroom door.
An older man, a grandad no doubt, looks quizzically at his son (or son-in-law).
‘They use to live here,’ says the younger man.
‘Wow,’ says the older man. ‘Oh. It’s not the… Is it?’
‘I know: random!’ says his son/son-in-law. ‘Oh no, it’s not them, it’s the ones before.’
‘Oh! Good, good.’
Back in the main space, Mum is explaining to an elegant woman – a gran, no doubt – where the kitchen used to be, and about the old sliding doors in the bathroom. She keeps looking up, and I know why. The ceiling has gone, and in its place the whole roof has been opened up, with high vaulted beams and giant skylights. The room seems to go on forever, in every direction. It is flooded with light, and the sightlines from the front of the house all the way through this giant living/eating/playing area to the fields beyond the garden are wonderful. My parents made owning and maintaining a house feel like hard work, a matter of persistence and donkeywork and grit. These people make it seem a matter of vision and flair, and I feel briefly oppressed on behalf of Mum and Dad at our small-mindedness and lack of imagination.
Mum continues to scan round the giant space, as if trying to re-impose her own world on this glossy new version. I know the gist of what she will say afterwards. Something about money, and working for what you want, and the value of things, and swanking it. And of course, she has a point. These people have an ease about them, in their clothes and their accents and their way of being, an aura of affluent privilege. They are nice people, people who have opened their home to a couple of strangers, but they can’t help giving off the whiff of a certain smug entitlement. Jealous: moi?
We move through the sliding doors and out onto the huge new patio, with its tiered decking and elegant Moroccan floor lanterns and free-standing gas heaters. At the bottom of the impeccably striped lawn, two boys are lazily kicking a ball around; they don’t look up. There are ponies now in the field beyond. I wonder if they belong to this family, but can’t bring myself to ask.
To the right, I take in the giant pine trees of the big house next door. Our little home had once been its gardener’s cottage, and Mum and Dad were the first owners when the properties were separated. The owners of the big house, I hear myself recount, used to let us use their swimming pool when they were away.
Slipping through a hole in the fence. Bare feet on pine needles. Birdsong and splendid isolation; a whole pool to ourselves! Floating for ever on a giant rubber ring that had once been a tractor’s inner tube. Always sunshine. Sparkling water and endless sunshine.
The two grandmothers are discussing the people who lived here in the period between us, and them.
‘Massive dogs they had, gnawed all the doors and carpets. Shat everywhere.’
‘Oh dear,’ says Mum. ‘I am so sorry.’ I want to tell her that she has no need to assume any responsibility in this matter.
‘I know,’ says the other. ‘Kept chickens too. The place stank. Broken bits of machinery everywhere. Moths in the walls. Stirrups in the dishwasher!’
‘Have you told them about the stirrups in the dishwasher?’ says the blonde woman, coming over. She is proud of the house, you can tell, and enjoys seeing that pride reflected in the eyes of visitors. She hands me a card. It says ‘Interior Design Consultant’, which makes a lot of sense. I keep up our side of the bargain, oohing and wowing at every possible moment.
Mum shuffles to the end of the terrace. Her eyes narrow as she stares through the pine trees to where the pool used to be.
Waking in the night, scared and dark. No one in the house. Sliding doors ajar. Slipping out, my heart thump-thumping, into the blackness of the garden. Laughter from next door. Tinkle of glass, burble of water. Dots of red light. A pregnant silence that is sound continued by other means. Sneaking through the fence. Feet pricking on pine cones. The smell of earth, animal noises, secrets of the night. Voices.
Mum holds out a frail, twisted hand, and instinctively I grasp it. For a short while, her eyes are closed, and she sighs. She has a whole panoply of different sighs, but this is one I don’t quite recognise.
A man and a woman, lying together by the poolside, one wrapped in the other, a red swimsuit, a confusion of limbs. Conspiracy of giggles and tender silences. When they speak, the woman’s voice is the one I know best of all in my whole little world. The man’s voice, that of a complete stranger.
And then Mum is back with us, her eyes scanning the garden once more, politely listening in to the chat, her thoughts basking submerged like eyeballs sliding behind closed lids. ‘Do you remember the injured fox?’ she says. ‘And how you used to slide down the ice on an old tin tray?’ She smiles, and winces, and smiles again.
‘We’ve taken up enough of your time,’ she says to our hostess. ‘Thank you so much for showing us around.’
‘Oh, it’s our pleasure!’
‘It’s brought back so many happy memories.’ Another sigh.
As far as I know, my parents were broadly happy. Certainly, my childhood was safe, and secure, and agreeably uneventful. Yes, there were silences and tensions, and periods of separation, but they were largely kept from me, and I never thought to examine them. Perhaps a sibling would have forced me to look harder.
In any event, there came a time when I decided that this simple contentment was banal and sterile, and that my parents were bourgeois and hypocritical; I had to invent something, I suppose, to kick against, to run away from. Only much later, when I got to know truly damaged people, did I appreciate a little more the invisible miracle of a frictionless childhood.
Another sigh from the passenger seat. I look across at my Mum. She looks grimly ahead once more, her expression fixed and unreadable.
I see you only as a collection of symptoms and sayings, Mum. I project onto you a gratifying image of my own noble self-sacrifice, pretending it’s a fraction of yours, pretending you need me more than I need you. Have you been happy, Mum? I’ve never thought to ask. I’ve only thought to know you as my Mum – which is to say, I’ve never known you at all.
Dan's debut collection of short stories is Hotel du Jack (Sandstone Press)